“Are You Wesleyan?”: New Website Sparks Debate
The University launched a redesigned website last week in an effort to expand its presence beyond the campus community and to better reach prospective students and parents as part of a transformation that will continue into 2010. The design—which featured a slideshow of questions in the admissions section that ranged from “Are you Wesleyan?” and “Do you contemplate infinity for the fun of it?” to “If you were an automobile, would you be a converted hybrid?”—raised concerns over the University’s portrayal of the “typical” Wesleyan student.
“[The website] reflects the stereotype of Wesleyan students as ultra-liberal, esoteric intellectuals,” said Julia Black ’13.
Before the redesign, the University’s web presence focused primarily on the internal campus audience, said Mark Bailey, Director of Strategic Communications.
“There was a need to improve the presentation of content to project the Wesleyan experience out to prospective students and their parents—and alumni wanted to see more, too,” Bailey said.
Headed by a Web Design Team comprised of staff members from University Communications and the New Media Lab, a structured redesign effort began 15 months ago. The Office of Admission consulted with the team in the creation of their new page. The team looked at other university websites to assess successful features that could be applied.
“My thinking has always been most prospective students will have been to nine or 10 sites before they get to Wesleyan—and we want them to stop and say ‘What’s going on at this school?’ and take extra time to learn more about Wes,” wrote Charlotte Lazor, Direction of Information Systems in an e-mail to The Argus.
Bailey has described the reception of the website as enthusiastic, but expressed the Web Design Team’s continued dedication to taking feedback into consideration.
Not all students agree with this assertion.
“It’s just trying too hard,” said Mickey Capper ’13.
Considerable discussion has ensued regarding the rotating “Are You Wesleyan?” questions on the header page for the new admissions site. Questions include “do you contemplate infinity for the fun of it?” and “if you were an automobile, would you be a converted hybrid?” Many students have expressed frustration with the way the questions portray students and the campus community.
“I think I share the opinion of most Wesleyan students in that they’re corny,” said Haley Perkins ’13.
According to Assistant Dean Tara Lindros, the questions are geared more towards prospective students who do not yet have a firm impression of the University as opposed to the existing community.
“I understand students’ perspective on the nature of these questions,” Lindros wrote in an e-mail to The Argus. “However, I think that if every single question there applied to you, what would be particularly Wesleyan about that? If you want to see a negative in the questions, you’ll be able to find one. As someone who works every day to try to explain why the Wesleyan experience is one that is distinctive and worth investing in, I find the questions capture in many ways what we are trying to communicate about Wes. I wouldn’t expect each individual student to find that every one of those questions resonates with them.”
Over the course of the 2008-2009 academic year, the redesign team gathered feedback from students, prospective students, faculty, and staff through ad hoc focus groups to make the website more reflective of the community as a whole. To facilitate further feedback, the team also developed a blog that allows anyone to look at suggested designs and offer responses. The blog received over 1,000 responses on a variety of web-related issues.
“The most conspicuous theme of the comments was that people wanted the new design to capture the spirit of Wesleyan,” wrote Nancy Meislahn, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid in an e-mail to The Argus.
The website was last redesigned in 2002 when the University outsourced the project to Razorfish, an interactive digital agency. According to Bailey, further advances in technology have since transformed the online experience and user expectations.
“Wesleyan needed a new web presence that reflected those realities and served users in the way they’ve come to expect,” he said.
Unlike the previous website remodeling, the process has been a completely internal effort.
“This entire Web Design effort has been researched, developed, implemented 100% by Wesleyan for Wesleyan,” Bailey said. “It was a sincere sense of confidence, not only in the means of the community, but in the abilities of the community to structure an online presence that is distinctively Wesleyan.”
Due to the fact that the process stayed within the University, the redesign presented no external costs.
“There are no invoices to look at,” Bailey said. “This is all done here at Wesleyan.”
Bailey emphasized that an important aim of the redesign process is to provide departments and community members with more direct control over individual web content. To allow this, the University acquired a content management system called Cascade. Previously, each department or individual needed to contact ITS to make changes.
“We’re already seeing that it enables people at the departmental level to author their own web content,” Bailey said.
There are still between 12-18 months of remodeling ahead that will convert the remaining thousands of pages on the website to the new design. According to Bailey, all of the work will be done in close cooperation with page owners and stakeholders.
President Michael Roth said there is always difficulty in attempting to capture aspects of the personality of the University on a website.
“I think we can’t take it too seriously,” Roth said. “It’s not a label. It’s a revisable invitation to description. But we’re definitely not trying to create a firm detailed picture of what the Wesleyan student has to be.”